Hundreds of protesters on a Hawaii mountain road erupted in cheers Wednesday after construction crews turned around and retreated from the site for what would be one of the world’s largest telescopes.
The billion-dollar project has drawn intense opposition from Native Hawaiians who say the 18-story observatory on the Big Island’s Mauna Kea would desecrate land they consider sacred.
Work on the Thirty Meter Telescope has been stalled for months after a large group blocked access to the mountaintop in April, a demonstration that led to 31 arrests.
Protesters said they were ready to adopt similar tactics and go to jail if necessary to make their point Wednesday.
Hawaii County police arrested one man, while state Department of Land and Natural Resources police arrested 11 others, officials said.
Several hundred gathered more than 9,000 feet up Mauna Kea, blocking workers who intended to install fencing around the construction site near the summit. The protesters blocked the road, then let workers pass, and different groups repeated the pattern several times at higher points on the mountain.
Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff, said in a statement that “large boulders were found in the roadway leading to the summit.”
McCartney said crews will work to clear the roadway on Thursday and that construction was put on hold.
A telescope spokeswoman, Caroline Witherspoon, confirmed that construction workers had turned away.
“For the safety of our team, we made the decision to bring them off the mountain and we are planning to resume when the issue is resolved,” the chair of the TMT International Observatory Board, Henry Yang, said in a statement.
Protester Kainoa Stafford said he saw Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources authorities put plastic cuffs on protesters at several points up the mountain and put them into vans “pretty much anytime someone wouldn’t comply or listen to their order.”
Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, said she didn’t have details on the 11 arrests.
Hawaii County police made the first arrest, Assistant Chief Henry Tavares said. A 44-year-old man was arrested and charged with obstructing, a misdemeanour, and released after posting $250 bail, police said.
For the protesters, many of whom had been camping near the visitor centre despite 30-degree nights, it was a victory.
“For today at least, we did really good at keeping our lines strong until arrest,” said protester Kuuipo Freitas.
Astronomers are interested in the site because its summit is nearly 14,000 feet high, well above the clouds and able to provide a clear view of the sky 300 days a year. There’s also very little air and light pollution.
Thirteen other large telescopes occupy Mauna Kea.
Ige has responded to the protests, saying Hawaii must do a better job of caring for the mountain but that construction crews have the right to proceed.
“The state and Hawaii County are working together to uphold the law and ensure safety on roadways and on Mauna Kea, while allowing the people their right to peacefully and lawfully protest,” the governor’s office said in a statement late Tuesday.
Protesters Wednesday ranged from toddlers to the elderly. Stafford said they were emotional but peaceful. “People were yelling, but no one got violent though,” he said.
The non-profit company Thirty Meter Telescope International Observatory LLC intends to build and operate the $1.4 billion telescope.
Its partners include India, China, Canada, Japan and the Thirty Meter Telescope Observatory Corp., formed by the University of California and the California Institute of Technology.
The partners, along with University of Hawaii scientists, would receive a share of observing time.
But protesters vow to remain vigilant.
“We were happy that they are not going to be desecrating our aina today,” said Freitas, using the Hawaiian word for land. “But tomorrow is another story. And the day after, and the day after that.”